Republican vision for Middle East at odds with reality

Mitt Romney's big foreign policy speech revealed neither new ideas nor insight, and seemed out of touch with Middle Eastern reality.

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Sitting in my hotel room in Abu Dhabi on Monday, I listened intently to Mitt Romney's speech on how he would shape US policy in the Middle East if elected president. I was expecting to hear some new direction, perhaps even a new comprehensive approach.

Instead, I heard Mr Romney pushing the same policies he's championed from the beginning of his campaign - ideas that would take the US and the Middle East back in time, not forward.

Mr Romney basically told his audience at the Virginia Military Institute that the US needs to take control and dictate the outcome of the events in the region. What that tells me is that the Republican nominee and his team of advisers have failed to understand the tectonic changes taking place in the Middle East. They are about what the people who live in the Middle East want, not what Washington expects.

People in the region seek real improvements in their lives and the lives of their children - a view I heard over and over during the first day of the Abu Dhabi Media Summit on Tuesday. The US has become such a target of anger and unrest largely because of how Americans are perceived after 10 years of waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after conducting drone strikes in Pakistan.

To be clear, President Barack Obama's policies in the region over the last three-and-a-half years have not been perfect, nor have they significantly advanced certain US interests with regards to some key challenges and problems. However, Mr Obama's commitment to supporting those who champion policy interests and objectives shared by the US have been central to America's foreign policy since he took office.

President Obama has rightly tried to extricate the US from conflict in the region and bring American troops home.

And he understands that the dynamics at play today in the region are fundamentally about reform of systems of governance, the economy and social structures. While security threats to the US are real, American policy cannot only be about carrying a "big stick".

Mr Romney maintains that the US should continue to commit overwhelming force "to have our way" in this region. After 10 years of tragic loss, with blood spilt on both sides and trillions of dollars spent on multiple wars, where has getting its way got the US?

Mr Romney's speech was full of many other shoulder-shrugging moments. Among the most memorable:

"Get tougher on Iran": What does that mean? Short of declaring war and trying to occupy the country as the US has done elsewhere in the region, there is little chance that the use of force by America or any other country will stop a determined Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

The alternative is more diplomacy and stricter sanctions, which the Obama administration has imposed with systematic efficiency. Iran's currency lost more than 40 per cent of its value last week, a clear indication of the effect sanctions are having under the current administration. At this point, a military strike would only rally public support for Iran's leadership and engender intense popular anger toward Iran's attackers.

"Do more for Israel": I have been involved in one way or another in helping ensure Israel's military edge for the last 25 years of my career, and at no time has US military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel been closer than in the last three years under President Obama.

There is of course some daylight between the political positions of President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But what more would a President Romney do with or for Israel other than fight a new war? Quite frankly it is hard to imagine what else could be done to support America's friend and ally.

"See that the rebels get arms in Syria": OK, fine, but then what? Giving the rebels arms is the first and conceivably most slippery step on a slope that is likely to lead to full-scale US involvement in yet another effort at regime change in the Middle East. And what comes after the Assad regime in Syria could present a far worse long-term situation.

"Condition aid in Egypt and other countries": The US already does that, to a point. Most experts agree that cutting off aid to Egypt would greatly limit Washington's ability to further influence the reform process. The Morsi government knows well that the US might threaten to cut off aid and Congress might actually do it someday, but doing so would be the end of the US-Egypt relationship.

In Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, the Obama administration has encouraged Nato partners and allies in the Gulf, like the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to take more of an active and direct approach in policing their own region. This cooperation is not always perfect, but a refreshing and promising approach of burden-sharing and mutual responsibility for these problems has emerged.

In fact, many political leaders in the region would like to be treated as equal partners and want more military, intelligence and trade collaboration with the US, not less.

Meanwhile, strong Middle East allies have emerged, eager to collaborate with the US to maintain security and support countries in the throes of reform and change. It is important that whoever wins the US presidential election next month cultivates these key regional partnerships and formulates US policy that takes into account the hopes and dreams of the peoples of the region - two elements of foreign policy absent from Mr Romney's speech on Monday.

Danny Sebright is a Washington-based business and foreign policy analyst with over two decades of experience in the Middle East.